Abraham Lincoln is the American president I admire the most. He led America through our Civil War, the bloodiest war in out history. Throughout, he showed remarkable sympathy for his opponents and tremendous political agility, while enduring personal tragedies and mental illnesses that would incapacitate most people. He seemed to maintain a sense of humor and, despite the difference in 19th century speaking styles, his words resonant today. He stood at a pivotal point in American history – before Lincoln, we said “the United States are'” but after Lincoln we say “the United States is.”
But the Great Man wasn’t above a little corruption.
In the “middle of the 1800s, Congressmen’s compensation for travel to and from their districts had been an unsuccessful but simmering reform target for years. The law provided for a 40-cent per-mile mileage reimbursement, and computed the distance ‘by the usually travelled route.’ Greeley [an influential newspaper publisher, famous today for advising ‘go west, young man, go west’] got a look at the schedule listing every congressman’s mileage [reimbursement] and was shocked by the sums.
“Among the accused stood Abraham Lincoln, in his only term as congressman. Lincoln’s travel from faraway Springfield, Illinois, made him the recipient of some $677 in excess mileage — more than $18,700 today — among the House’s worst.” propublica.org
Cheating was rampant and Lincoln grabbed his share.
I wouldn’t want to vote for such a politician – though I have to admit that I might if the opponent seemed worse. When today’s politics depress me, I try to remember that we’ve seen worse. There was no Golden Age, not political Eden from which we’ve fallen. At least today’s Senators aren’t trying to assassinate our leader, and Representatives aren’t beating and stabbing each other on the House floor. Scandal is nothing new, and even a presidential election between two Founding Fathers featured “jockeying for electoral votes, regional divisions, and propaganda smear campaigns created by both parties.” As the bumper sticker says, if you wanna be free, you gotta be brave; so I stay engaged and try to not be a jerk.
Somehow, this bit of financial corruption doesn’t change my view of Lincoln. Maybe it even offers some comfort as I contemplate today’s miserable gridlocked Congress. If Lincoln, for all his flaws, could be great, perhaps greatness still walks the halls of power, ready to emerge at the proper time. Or, at least, it encourages me to hope we’ll survive the current crop of power-brokers.